Tackling fragmentation: Uniting your stakeholders through shared storytelling

Place branding is strongest when everyone is telling the same story about your place. After all, whether you’re talking to citizens, visitors, or investors, at the end of the day, you’re still talking about the same place.

It’s easier said than done, though. Inevitably a city, region, or nation will have a number of legacy organisations that each have their own agendas and priorities baked into their strategies. Bringing your destination marketing organisations and economic development teams together into a single organisation might be viable for some, but politics, logistics, or economics might prevent that for others.

In the face of these challenges, very few of the organisations we speak to have a truly unified place brand organisation, but that doesn’t mean accepting an endlessly fragmented brand for your place. Destinations around the world are leaning into the power of place branding to unite their stakeholders behind a single vision for their place.

Collaborative place branding is a key theme of the 2024 City Nation Place Americas agenda, so we reached out to our speakers to discover what practical advice they had for organisations looking to engage their stakeholders and ensure that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet.

Building the foundations for long-term relationships with your partners

Before you can begin telling a united story for your place, you first need to strengthen the connections between your organisations. In particular, it’s critical to understand what your stakeholders top priorities are and how you can help to address these.

“Active listening, infused with empathy and understanding, forms the cornerstone of effective communication,” shared Britnie Bazylewski, Tourism Development Officer for the Corporation of the Town of Lincoln, Niagara Benchlands Tourism. “In a world where time is fleeting, quality interactions become invaluable. Prioritising face-to-face engagement cultivates meaningful connections and strengthens our sense of belonging.”

This approach fosters trust and collaboration between stakeholders, and has helped nurture a sense of ownership in the shared vision for Lincoln and the Niagara Benchlands. In doing so, it allows all stakeholders to be active participations in telling the story of the region.

Santiago C. Corrada, President & CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, also recommended adopting a relationship-first approach. “We foster a culture that’s relational, not transactional,” he explained. “Our team understands the value of long-term synergistic relationships, and that is why we have earned the position to handle marketing and advertising for our economic development agency, Tourism Marketing District, and multiple independent organisations.”

Be authentic and lean into your shared history

Partnerships are always stronger when they’re built on commonalities – and what could be more unifying than your connection to your place?

“We delved into the community’s rich history and culture to craft a narrative that resonates with diverse stakeholders and demographics,” outlined Doug Warner, EVP at Explore Charleston. “The storytelling approach has been instrumental in fostering a sense of shared identity and purpose, creating a common thread that binds residents, businesses and local institutions.”

By celebrating your heritage, your assets, and your community values, you create a platform that your stakeholders can see themselves reflected in and that is easy to champion and amplify. “You can’t build an economic development strategy or tell a story that isn’t grounded in truth,” stated Peter Frosch, CEO of Greater MSP. “So, look for some essential attributes of your region that people will recognise  as inherently true.”

For Greater MSP, Peter flagged three key areas they focus on in their marketing: the community’s incredible work ethic – which goes hand in hand with their agricultural heritage ; a deep-seated drive for innovation – evidenced by the companies founded in the region; and finally their strong civic ethic. “All these factors come into play when we tell the story about how our region is the ‘problem-solving capital of the world,’ and how we’re collaborating at scale to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges,” Peter continued.

Embrace a data and insight driven approach

However, it’s all well and good to say that you’re telling an authentic story about your place, but being able to back up your strategy with data is also important in getting stakeholders to buy-in to your place brand narrative.

“The development of our place brand – Always Moving Forward – was a data-driven process that included a listening tour of the region’s stakeholders, including major employers, residents, post-secondary institutions, entrepreneurs, and the local municipalities,” shared Jillian MacKinnon, VP, Marketing Communications & Strategic Initiatives for ENVISION SAINT JOHN: The Regional Growth Agency. “Based on our history and the natural assets in the region, we tested a variety of value propositions for the Saint John Region. And surveyed residents both inside the region and those familiar with the region to gauge perceptions of the value proposition and our tagline – Always Moving Forward. These activities helped to validate our story and has increased the adoption of common messaging.”

The new brand embraces the region’s historic uptown core, married with a working port. Underpinning your strategy with a rigorous engagement approach provides the insights needed to assuage concerns of your key stakeholders about the authenticity of your story.

We’re heading to Houston this May 14-15 for City Nation Place Americas. Join us to hear from Britnie, Doug, Jillian, Peter, and Santiago as part of our line-up of expert place leaders from across the USA and Canada and discover actionable strategies to build a successful collaborative approach to place branding and place marketing. Learn more here.

The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.